Taking your first steps to the bar

Getting pupillage is tough, the work is hard and it doesn’t guarantee tenancy, but it does offer the opportunity to learn an immense amount about the work of a barrister.

The fundamental aspects of training at the bar have not changed in the past century. But litigation has changed, with fewer cases reaching court and alternative dispute resolution being ever-more popular. Can the traditions of the bar still equip tomorrow’s leading counsel for the challenges ahead in the modern contentious world?

Despite unifying regulations about pay and the advertisement of pupillage vacancies, individual sets are still permitted to go about recruiting and interviewing pupils and potential new tenants in the way they prefer. As a new barrister, nobody can get a tenancy without a pupillage; but a pupillage does not guarantee you tenancy in the same set. The process is essentially a year-long interview by the rest of your chambers.

But it all starts a long time before that, with a week of ‘mini-pupillage’. Increasingly, many sets require potential pupils to have completed a mini-pupillage prior to application, and these days a mini-pupillage often functions as the first stage of the interview process.

“The set wants to have a look at whether the pupil is up to the job,” says David Scannell of Brick Court Chambers. Scannell was given tenancy at the set in October 2005 after completing a mini-pupillage and a pupillage there. At Brick Court, it is compulsory to have undertaken a mini-pupillage prior to applying for a full pupillage, and everyone undertakes an assessment during the week, which is later taken into consideration.

“It’s a formative week and it can be a very challenging week – you’re kept busy. It would be wrong to imagine that mini-pupillages are like summer vacation placements in solicitors’ firms,” claims Scannell.

His view is echoed across the Inns of Court, but young barristers on the whole agree that doing a mini-pupillage is an essential part of training. But with most big sets offering around 40 mini-pupillages compared with around four pupillages each year, getting a mini-pupillage is by far the easiest part of the whole training process.

Although there are still around 1,200 places on offer at bar school, the number of pupillage places is dropping each year. In 2004, just 572 people were offered pupillage, a 20 per cent drop from 2003. Tenancy is even harder to get, with slightly more than 300 new tenants in total in 2004. There is increased pressure on students at all stages of bar training, pushing up the quality of successful candidates.

All those who have gone through the pupillage process stress how hard it is. “I don’t think I really realised how exhausting it was going to be,” says Anna Bicarregui of 4-5 Gray’s Inn Square.

Alastair Tomson, a tenant at company law set 4 Stone Buildings, agrees. “It was much harder than I expected,” he says. “On my first day I was given a whacking great folder to read – I was certainly thrown in at the deep end. From day one, I thought, ‘this is tough, I need to make sure I’m putting all my effort in’.”

But the warnings are tempered with perspective. Jennifer Jones, a member of Atkin Chambers, points out that pupils rarely have to work the same long hours as trainee solicitors. Some sets practically kick pupils out of chambers when the working day is over. In contrast, a trainee solicitor will often work well into the night.

Pupillages at the top commercial sets are all quite structured, with the year split across three or four practice areas through periods with different pupil masters. Bar Council regulations dictate that the first six months of pupillage are non-practising. However, that does not mean there is less work. Instead, pupils find themselves shadowing and supporting their pupil masters in a short period of intense learning.

In the second six months, a pupil is allowed to accept instructions and appear in court, with the superviser’s permission. Chambers usually make decisions on tenancy around halfway through the second six following a consultation process that involves consultation and recommendation from the pupillage committee, followed by a chambers vote. Many sets take into account assessments carried out through the first six, including problem-solving exercises and advocacy, in making the decision.

Junior tenants say the issue of tenancy is something that hangs over a pupil’s head throughout the year, particularly as many top commercial sets routinely take on more pupils than they can offer tenancy to. These days, getting pupillage is by no means a guarantee that the set will offer you a job.

Tomson, who was one of two pupils at 4 Stone Buildings, says: “It was always made reasonably clear that only one of us would be taken on. You’ve got to try to put uncertainty out of your mind and treat pupillage as a job.”

Not getting tenancy does not mean that a career as a barrister is over. A common option in criminal sets is to move on to do a third six months of pupillage at a different chambers. Third sixes are also possible in commercial sets, although the market is much smaller and has been even more limited in the past two years.

Jones at Atkins was forced to seek a third six after 7 King’s Bench Walk (7KBW), where she completed her pupillage, did not offer her tenancy. While Jones admits that initially being rejected was a shock, she says that, having been through the third six process, she came to realise that “the third six doesn’t destroy your life”.

Jones says her principle challenge as a third-sixer was to adjust to a different area of law. Atkins specialises in construction law, while 7KBW handles a lot of shipping and insurance work. “I had to start from scratch again, but it’s not like starting from scratch completely,” she explains, adding: “I was very lucky; I enjoyed both sets of pupillage.”

In a commercial environment, obtaining one of the rare third sixes will usually lead to tenancy. For every barrister, whether pupillage has lasted 12 or 18 months, the transition from pupil to junior tenant is daunting. Support from chambers is good, but nevertheless it is a sudden change – from student to self-employed practitioner in a matter of weeks.

“The biggest thing is taking responsibility,” Bicarregui says, explaining her nerves the first time she put her own name to a document. “On the other hand, it’s really exciting.”

Scannell adds: “It’s often difficult managing time. The biggest challenge is that you don’t have a boss – you have to be proactive.”

Finding work is not a problem, with commercial sets reporting that junior tenants are very busy. While financially the first six months can be tricky due to the time lag between work being done and being paid, many chambers offer interest-free loans or other forms of financial support.

Young barristers say that, when they come to practise, they are able to start their careers with most of the necessary skills.

“Pupillage converts your brain from being a purely academic organ into an instrument that can convert academic opinions for clients,” says Scannell.

The main failing for commercial sets appears to be that not enough advocacy experience is provided during pupillage. Chambers attempt to fill the gap with exercises simulating the court experience, but the truth is that, with fewer cases in court, there is less opportunity for second-sixers to handle their own hearings.

Blackstone Chambers tenant Victoria Windle says advocacy exercises are “not brilliant”, but adds: “You need to have gone to court enough to know a little about it. Going to court with your pupil master is probably enough, provided that you really had an opportunity to be fully involved in the case.”

Jones points out that pupils need to make the effort to expose themselves to as much court work as possible, while Bicarregui adds: “Certainly it would be better to get more small stuff in the second six, but I haven’t felt incompetent.”

For those prepared to work hard, pupillage offers a comprehensive and high-quality year of training, equipping young barristers with the knowledge they need for the future. Provided chambers can maintain their efforts in promoting advocacy, bar training is fulfilling its requirements and helping to maintain England’s reputation as producing some of the world’s best lawyers.